N.M. PRC Chairman to Stay out of Appeal in Insurance Case

New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Chairman Ben Ray Lujan has taken himself off an appeal of an insurance rate decrease because of a meeting he’d had with Gov. Bill Richardson’s campaign manager, Dave Contarino, who co-owns a title company.

The New Mexico Land Title Association, which represents insurance agents and underwriters, and the PRC staff had requested Lujan’s recusal.

Lujan has said he believes the title insurance industry wanted him removed because he has talked about the need for title insurance reform.

“I look forward to going up against the title insurance lobby in the next legislative session,” said Lujan, who has said he’ll ask Richardson to put title insurance reform on the Legislature’s agenda in January.

Lujan and Contarino denied there was anything inappropriate about their September 2006 meeting.

Another commissioner, Jason Marks, took himself off the case earlier because he had spoken to PRC staff members about the rates.

The other three commissioners heard arguments from the land title association, title insurance underwriters and the state attorney general’s office. The commissioners will make a decision on the appeal later.

State Insurance Superintendent Morris Chavez in July ordered a 6.3 percent reduction in title insurance rates and raised the amount of fees that agents get from 80 percent to 84 percent.

Ed Roibal, executive director of the land title association, said the decrease wasn’t supported by evidence. His group requested a 1.4 percent rate reduction. Insurance Division staff recommended a 1.7 percent reduction.

Contarino, who was not at the hearing, said he met with Lujan last year after learning Lujan had met with others in the industry. He said he told Lujan about a proposal to lower title insurance rates but increase the percentage of fees to local agents, thus decreasing the percentage to underwriters.

Contarino, the governor’s former chief of staff, said he would not advise Richardson about putting the matter on the legislative agenda.

“Clearly, I wouldn’t give an opinion,” he said. “I’m in the industry, and I’m not in the governor’s office anymore.”